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From Campus to the Pros: College Coaches Conquering the NFL

Urban Meyer (Former Jacksonville Jaguars coach) is the latest college head coach attempting to reproduce his previous achievements in the NFL, but he certainly isn’t the first. Several collegiate leaders who made the switch have already been honored in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the NFL has seen numerous other triumphs. Here, we present a compilation of the top coaches who have transitioned from the college ranks.

From Campus to the Pros: College Coaches Conquering the NFL

John Brown

Brown became one of the most significant personalities in the NFL after building a name as a successful high school and college coach in Ohio, the latter run at Ohio State. In 1946, Brown introduced the Browns as a member of the All-American Football Conference, ushering in play-calling, intensive film analysis, and a host of other innovations that enhanced football. During Brown’s first ten seasons as Cleveland’s head coach, the club reached 10 championship games and claimed seven championships, including two victories over the Rams, Cleveland’s old franchise. Art Modell started the Bengals and led them for eight seasons (three playoff appearances) after he sacked Brown in 1963.

Carroll, Pete

Prior to Seattle, Carroll led a distinguished NFL existence. He spent a total of four seasons as the Jets and Patriots’ head coach. However, Carroll’s nine-season stint at USC entrenched him in the collegiate game and gave him a new lease on life for his third NFL season. The Seahawks have reached their highest point as a franchise under the two-time national champion. He and GM John Schneider put together one of the finest squad cores of the twenty-first century, and the Legion of Boom and Russell Wilson-driven teams were one play-calling error away from winning back-to-back championships. Despite personnel changes, the defensive mastermind has kept the Seahawks competitive throughout the years.

 Clark, Potsy

In the Portsmouth Spartans’ second season (1931), Clark, a head coach at Kansas with more than ten years of experience in the collegiate game, took over. Clark led the Spartans (later the Lions) to an 11-3 season at the age of 37. The Spartans changed their name to the Lions the year after losing to the Bears in the most bizarre championship game in NFL history, which was played indoors on a temporary 60-yard field due to bad weather. In 1935, the Lions defeated the Giants to win their first championship under the leadership of Potsy and Hall of Famer Dutch Clark. In ten pro seasons, Potsy Clark had a 64-42-12 record.

Fairbanks, Chuck

Although Fairbanks’ time with the Patriots did not end well, by the middle of the 1970s the club had become a serious AFC contender. In 1973, Fairbanks moved from Oklahoma to lead the Pats. They had an 11-3 record by 1976. A long-debated roughing-the-passer ruling ruined the Pats’ shock victory against the Raiders in the divisional round, but two seasons later they were back in the playoffs. Although Fairbanks (46-39 in the NFL) committed to coaching Colorado late that season, the 1978 Patriots broke a team running record until Lamar Jackson’s MVP season. The Pats and the then-Big 8 schools got into a legal dispute as a result, which led to a ban for Week 16.

 Harbaugh, Jim

Although Bill Callahan’s Raiders were the fiery leader’s first employer, Harbaugh spent seven years in California as a college head coach. When the Stanford HC took over in 2011, the 49ers’ direction underwent a significant change. The 49ers, who had missed the previous eight playoff rounds, were given new life by Harbaugh, who also helped the club qualify for three straight championship games after turning around Alex Smith’s career. The 49ers were thwarted by several unlucky events, including Kyle Williams’ turnovers and the pass interference no-call in Super Bowl XLVII, and Harbaugh lost the support of the team’s leadership. But the team’s 21st-century peak was during his four-year tenure.

Howell, Jim Lee

Howell played with the Giants for eight seasons but is best recognized for his coaching duties throughout the 1950s. The World War II veteran hired Vince Lombardi and Tom Landry as coordinators upon arriving in New York in 1954, and he never had a losing season there while assembling an absurdly brilliant team. This group made the Giants once again a force in the NFL. The defense-focused team easily defeated the Bears to win the 1956 championship and went on to make two more championship appearances, losing both times to the Colts, the first of which was a pretty legendary game. Howell has the greatest victory % in Giants’ history (.663). He doesn’t have a Hall of Fame ring.

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